Henry George Fifty Years Ago and To-Day

Will Atkinson

[An Address delivered at the Banquet of the Henry George Foundation, 3 September, 1926. Reprinted from Land and Freedom, Vol. XXVI, No.5, September-October, 1926]

A FEW blocks from here thirty-seven years ago a dinner to Henry George was given in the Bullitt Building. There were 426 present. I had the honor to be Toastmaster. Two clergymen made addresses; one from Cincinnati and one from Henry, 111. Ministers who openly advocated the doctrines of Henry George were rare in those days and both were given prominent places on the programme. Both apparently mistook the occasion and while their addresses were eloquent, they sounded like funeral sermons and had a depressing effect on the digestions of the diners.

The second speaker was a wealthy merchant, A. H. Stephenson, one of the ablest, most devoted, and most self-sacrificing of the early followers of Henry George in Philadelphia, who in order to do more effective work, took a course at the National School of Elocution and Oratorv which he completed just before this dinner. His speech was the first he made after his graduation. It was a very serious affair for him and he made it a very serious one for us.

It seemed to be my duty to lighten the spirits of those present by telling stories at which the diners laughed. Henry George laughed with the others, but after each story he leaned over to me and said, "The application, the application." In each case I lugged in an application by the ears but I never again attempted to tell a story in Henry George's presence without having an application handy.

He had a keen sense of humor but he did not want even a story wasted. He had a horror of waste and it was the waste involved in our foolish attempts to defy the laws of nature and of nature's God, the needless and useless suffering and waste of human lives, which inspired him to write his immortal works.

What manner of man was this who rose over night from poverty and obscurity to world-wide fame?

Fifty years ago there lived in San Francisco a man of 37 whose life was thought by many to be a hopeless failure. He had sought gold in California and in Canada but failed. He had been a sailor without rising from the forecastle. He had earned a precarious living setting type. Had failed as part owner of a job-printing plant. Had established a paper only to lose i t after four years of hard work because his conscience was scrupulous and his enemies lacked scruple.

At 37 to support his family, he was reduced to soliciting a political job and was made State Inspector of Gas Meters. The brilliant company there of newspaper men and authors (many of national fame) called him, some carelessly, some contemptuously, "little Henry George."

He set himself the task of writing a book on political economy, the Dismal Science, though even with great names attached such books seldom sold a thousand copies.

He deliberately challenged and sought to overthrow the greatest of monopolies, the monopoly of the earth.

Can you imagine deed more daring? Asoul more knightly? Here one man, poor and alone, flung down his gage to the great ones of the earth; set his puny strength to overthrow a wrong hoary with antiquity, buttressed by the custom of ages. What hero of history or romance, of fact or fiction, ever matched it?

Nor was it the valor of ignorance, for he had just felt the heavy hand of privilege. "Greater love hath no man than this, that he laid down his life for his friend." Yet this man laid his life on the altar for strangers, for the poor and weak, the friendless, the oppressed of all the earth.

His only university had been the University of Hard Knocks, his books were men, his college the printer's case. His book completed, his friends helped him set the type as he could find a publisher in no other way. Ten years later, the unknown San Francisco printer was elected Mayor of the greatest of American cities (though as afterward admitted by Tammany men, he was counted out) and "Progress and Poverty" had already sold more than a million copies.

Why? Because this printer dipped his pen in life, his words throbbed with sympathy for suffering and thrilled with the logic of truth. He taught that men's miseries are due to man-made laws, never to divine law. That the ignorance which shelters in schools, the crime which lurks in the shadow of churches; famine amid full granaries, poverty in plenty, are all due to men's laws which ignore and defy the divine intent. That to abolish poverty and tame the ruthless passions of greed, we need only to align men's laws with Nature's.

Forty years ago I crowded into the Old Chickering Hall, 17th St. and Broadway, which was jammed with an enthusiastic audience of business and professional men advocating the election of Henry George as Mayor of New York. Professor David B. Scott of the University of New York, closed an eloquent address by saying, "Theycall us cranks. What is a crank? Webster defines a crank as an instrument that effects revolutions."

As the applause died away there were persistent calls for "McGlynn." My brother and I, strangers from Philadelphia, were apparently the only persons in that vast audience who did not know McGlynn. By standing on tiptoe in the upper gallery, jammed against the wall, I could see the magnificent head and body of Rev. Dr. Edward McGlynn as he walked to the center of the stage and held up his hand for silence. He began "Our Father Which Art in Heaven, Hallowed be Thy Name. They Kingdom Come, Thy will be done, on Earth as it is in Heaven." Then his voice was drowned out by tumultous applause which shook the walls and lasted, it seemed to me, for more than ten minutes before the speaker could proceed.

I do not know which astounded me most; that any speaker, even a priest, should begin a political speech by a quotation from the Lord's Prayer, or the instantaneous recognition by every person in that audience of his meaning and application. When his voice could again be heard, he went on, "That is why I, a f rocked priest, stand tonight upon a political platform to urge the election of Henry George as Mayor of New York, because the triumph of his ideas means the bringing about of conditions under which it will be possible to do God's will on earth asitis done in Heaven." Never before, or since, have I listed to such eloquence. I did not then know that he spoke under threat of suspension; that Archibishop Corrigan had twice prohibited him from speaking at that meeting. The suspension came the next day. Excommunication followed on the fourth of the following July on his refusal to recant or apologize.

That was '86. In '91 appeared the Encylical letter on the "Condition of Labor" by Pope Leo 13th. Henry George stopped work on the "Science of Political Economy" to write a reply, which was published under the title of the "Condition of Labor." After the English edition was printed and bound, its distribution was held up for some thirty days. I did not know why, until at Henry George's house one day he asked me if I could read French, and on my telling him I could, he gave me a letter which he had just received from the publisher of the Italian edition of the "Condition of Labor", which said that the first copy, handsomely bound, had that day been handed to the Pope's secretary and that he had his promise that the Pope would read every word of it, or that he would read every word of it to the Pope himself.

A few weeks later the Catholic world was astounded at the news that the Pope was sending Monsignor Satolli as a personal representative to America with authority transcending that of the American Cardinals and Archbishops. On his arrival the first thing Monsignor Satolli did was to send for Dr. McGlynn and ask him to make a statement of the views which Archbishop Corrigan had condemned. This statement reads very much like a paraphrase of the "Condition of Labor." It was submitted to a committee of distinguished theologians who were professors at the Catholic University in Washington and they unanimously reported to Monsignor Satolli, in writing, that there was nothing in that Statement contrary to the doctrines of the Catholic Church.

One of the main purposes of writing the "Condition of Labor" had been accomplished and the Rev. Dr. Edward McGlynn was restored to his priestly functions. This is said to be the only case in the 1900 years of the history of that church, in which a priest once excommunicated has been restored to his duties without recantation and without apology.

We are nearer complete success today than we have dared dream. Have you ever seen a dam go down? It stands today as it has stood for generations, crowned by sky-aspiring trees whose sun kissed branches spread wide and high. But their roots have rotted, and the slow seepage of water through the spaces left by their decay has gradually and slowly widened these spaces, crawfish creep in and while above the dam seems as strong as ever it has really been honeycombed through and through. A gentle rain begins as it has begun a million times before; slowly the water, rises and without warning the dam crumbles, disappears and the flood sweeps down?

So is it of the dam of prejudice, of custom, of privilege, of inertia, which has kept from the thirsty desert plains below the life-giving waters of freedom of opportunity to all.

I have had the privilege of editing articles on the "Henry George We Knew" written by men from all over the earth; men most varied in age, in character, in habits, in environment. Their views are many-sided, kaleidoscopic; yet in one thing all agree. Whether they knew Henry George in person or only through his books, he was to all an inspiration to the highest and best in man.

In some forty years more than six million copies of Henry George's books have been sold. They have been translated into every language, even Japanese and Chinese. His words on Tolstoi's tongue illumined the dark night of despotism in Russian and are the guide today of those who seek sanity there; they gave cheer to Sun-Yat Sen and those who helped him overthrow that most ancient of all empires, and are today inspiring the Chinese republicans: and wherever in all the world is suffering, oppression or tyranny, the gospel of Henry George offers hope, consolation, cheer and inspiration.

But we are unworthy to be his disciples if we are satisfied merely to pay lip service to his memory. "Come with me," said Richard Cobden to John Bright, as he turned heart-stricken from a new-made grave, "Come with me. There are in England women and children dying of hunger, of hunger made by the laws; come with me and we will not rest till we repeal those laws." So despite rotten boroughs, a hereditary aristocracy and vested interests which seemed all-powerful, the Corn Laws were repealed.

Yet, here in free America, most prosperous of nations, with boundless wealth and opportunities beyond the powers of the imagination even here are women and children dying of hunger, of hunger made by the laws. To all here, to all in the wide world, we say "Come with us and we will not rest till we have repealed those laws."